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Mao Zedong: A Penguin Life (Penguin Lives) Hardcover – October 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

From humble beginnings in rural Hunan, Mao Zedong became the "Great Helmsman" of Communist China. By the time he died in 1976, he had profoundly changed the course of history. His increasingly erratic whims and graspings at a wild utopia destabilized his immense achievements, and he was ultimately responsible for the deaths of perhaps 60 million people. Jonathan Spence brings great erudition to the story of this flawed colossus. He is particularly enlightening on Mao's early years--it is nearly two-thirds through the book before Mao stands on the walls of the Forbidden City in October 1949 and declares the establishment of the People's Republic of China. The young revolutionary's infamous willfulness is soon apparent, yet Spence rounds out his character by, for example, quoting a poem to his beloved first wife and mentioning the profit he made from an early capitalist venture, a bookstore. Mao Zedong is excellent biography--and more. China was convulsed for nearly a century by almost constant war and revolution, and Spence uses the life of the man at the heart of so many historic events to elucidate the whole momentous epoch. In his many writings, Spence has proved a master at making complex themes easy to understand, and this compact book provides yet another example of his skills. --John Stevenson

From Publishers Weekly

In the latest of the concise Penguin Lives series, China historian Spence (The Gate of Heavenly Peace, etc.) blends historical facts with cultural analysis, creating a work that is fluid and informative despite its brevity. Portraying an intimate Mao (1893-1976), Spence leaves much of the political commentary to other historians, focusing instead on how a boy from the farm villages of Hunan rose to rule the most populous nation in the world. Spence gives readers a Mao who is smart but not wise, unexceptional in almost all qualities except his "inflexible will" and "ruthless self-confidence." He points out that, even at a young age, Mao's perception of governing foreshadowed much of how he eventually did rule: in an essay written about Lord Shang, a Qin dynasty minister, Mao argued that Shang's rule, considered by historians to be cruel, was just ("At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it"). "I have come," writes Spence, "to think of the enigmatic arena in which Mao seemed most at home as being that of order's opposite, the world of misrule." The shortness of the form enablesAor requiresASpence to accelerate the pace of Mao's life, thus adding drama to the sea change in Mao's character from na?ve idealist to cunning political infighter and center of a personality cult. The Mao who lingers on the last page is a somewhat diminished, Lear-like figure, estranged from his wife and ultimately unsure of whether his revolution had a future. When Henry Kissinger praised Mao's writings during their famous meeting, the chairman responded: "I think that, generally, people like me sound like a lot of big canons." (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670886696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670886692
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #281,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Richard E. Hegner on March 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jonathan Spence's biography of Mao was my first experience with the new Penguin Lives series, and I was unsure what to expect. Certainly, one cannot expect too much from a biography of one of the major political figures of the 20th century that offers only 178 pages of text and 10 pages of endnotes. But I was game to try it, since I knew very little about Mao and gathered I would learn a lot in a relatively short time from this biography.
Spence certainly succeeds in compressing most of the major events of Mao's life into this thin volume, and concisely reviews much of Mao's political thought and how it evolved. He also does a good job of mining source materials, particularly some of Mao's more obscure writing and poetry. But my major frustration in reading this book was a feeling that I never learned much about Mao as an individual human being, except that he came from obscure bourgeois peasant roots, that he was "married" at least four times and had at least ten children with whom he had rather distant relationships, and that as the years passed, he became more and more of a megalomaniac. I would also fault the book for giving minimal attention to the history of the times and to Mao's principal comrades in arms. (For example, Zhou Enlai does not appear until the final quarter of the book and gets minimal mention at that. The Long March gets only 2-3 pages.) Also somehwat curious is that the book lacks an index.
All of that said, however, this is a remarkably informative book given its length. I should emphasize that the text on each page measures lightly under 6 x 4 inches, too--so not only is it a short book, but also a small book. I put the book down eager to learn more about Mao, which I suppose does commend it to other readers who know as little as I did before I read it.
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40 of 45 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 24, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I felt this book--more a monograph than a biography--was a bit too cursory to really get at the heart of Mao. The war years are covered in just a few pages, and the period of Mao's reign is covered in much the same fashion. I found myself wanting to know a lot more. Considering the relative importance of Mao's reign compared with his early life, it's a little strange so much time is spent in these early years. After reading the book, I still don't get a clear picture of how Mao was able to parlay himself into the leading figure in communist party and then how he was able to keep so much power to himself later on. In short, it was a fair introduction, but it lacked depth and balance.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Unsatisfied on November 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
For better or worse, I'm a vetran reader of Mao biographies. Jonathan Spence's biography was intially appealing given both his history of success in writing about the Chinese revolution and the relatively compact nature of this book. Given that I hadn't read a Mao article or bio in a little while, I was hoping Mr. Spence's book would be a Mao refresher with some added perspectives and insight only Mr. Spence could give. Although wrong in the second sense and right in the first, the book did prove to be interesting.
The book is, and I imagine by design, a very incomplete look at Mao's life. For example, only until well after the half way point is there any mention of the all important Zhou En-Lai. In the same sense, Mr. Spence chooses only to provide very specific details and stories regarding Mao's life. Thus, the perception of Mao isn't really of human but a slogan of some sort. If this is a reader's first Mao biography, I imagine the reader to be both confused and wanting after reading the book.
Instead, Mr. Spence chooses to focus specifically on the question of why China went nuts for Mao, and what Mao role in this was. Because of this, despite the length, the book was a success. As a result, the book is a commentary on Chinese culture through the Mao period, and a note on demigods. Passages about Mao, and the book as a whole are targeted to answer these questions.
For the Novice Mao reader, I'm convinced the book will be a disapointment. Conversely, this book is in an interpretation of China through a difficult period explained through one character: Mao.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By TEK on February 21, 2007
Format: Paperback
Jonathan Spence is probably the leading Western scholar on Chinese history, and for that reason alone this book is worth reading. Spence provides the reader with a concise overview of Mao's life with an appropriate amount of commentary on issues that help the reader understand Mao's personality. This focus on Mao as a person (instead of Mao as an historical actor) is, in my opinion, the book's strongest feature.

I'd like to spend a second or two dealing with what some of the other reviewers of this book have said, because I think several of them have missed the mark. Some people seem to be disquieted because Spence spends so little time covering the historical aspects of major events, such as the Long March, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. However, the point of this book is not to give a detailed account of Mao's role in modern Chinese history, but rather to provide an image of Mao that readers can get their hands around. Spence accomplishes this task nicely, and reviewers misunderstand his purpose when they criticize this book for its lack of coverage of such important events.

Another set of reviewers are disillusioned with the book because they feel it does not adequately show how Mao went from a middle-peasantry childhood to become the leader of China. I don't know what these reviewers think the book is missing in particular; I think Spence does a good job of capturing the essence of Mao's life through time, and Spence stops at each categorical change in Mao's life to explain what was going on that led to Mao's upward shift in stature.

I give this book three stars because I think it is a book without a definable demographic in terms of readership.
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